INTERVIEW

"We never wanted to be teen heartthrobs": A-Ha lead singer on the band's longevity and "Take On Me"

Frontman Morten Harket spoke to Salon about the band's new documentary, dealing with fame and the trio's chemistry

By Gary M. Kramer
Published June 12, 2021 4:00PM (EDT)
A-Ha: The Movie (Tribeca Fillm Festival)
A-Ha: The Movie (Tribeca Fillm Festival)

The Norwegian pop band A-ha had a number one hit in America back in 1985 with their catchy tune, "Take On Me." Their debut album, "Hunting High and Low," sold 11 million copies, and the band was nominated for a Best New Artist Grammy. They never topped the heights of that breakout success in the U.S., but A-ha had more luck in Norway and the U.K. and developed a devoted international fanbase. (Coldplay is among the band's most ardent fans). They later recorded a James Bond theme song, "The Living Daylights," and, as many bands do, took a break, took on solo projects, and made a comeback or two.

The enjoyable documentary, "A-ha the Movie," receiving its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, recounts the experiences of keyboardist Magne Furuholmen, guitarist Pål Waktaar-Savoy, and singer Morten Harket. The film is very much like their music — frothy at first, then more serious; and, like their famous "Take On Me" music video, a bit animated. 

The film shows the band's evolution from its early formation and struggles to its "overnight" success and the various personal and professional issues of control that threaten to break up the group. Of course, the music is what ultimately matters, and much of it is strong. For folks who only know A-ha from their hit single or debut album, "A-ha the Movie" shows that this trio is no flash in the pan and that many of their deeper cuts are well worth a listen.

Harket chatted via Zoom with Salon about his band, the new documentary, and fame

Why did A-ha agree to make this film? What motivated the band to take on this project and at this time?

I don't feel we played much of an active part in any of that except in the making of it and being available for the interviews. It's more the director's take. We haven't had a hand in how it was done. It's his film. In that sense, we are playing a passive role. We just accepted his being around and hovering in the area every now and then for five years.

You're performing to crowds that number 200,000 and have women mobbing you for photos and autographs everywhere you go. Can you talk about the pleasures and perils of fame and being a rock star? The film captures some of that nightmare of "living the dream."

The best description I have on what it is like to be in that constant light, no matter where you go, is like being tugged by the shoulder. They can tug it gently, or harder, but it never goes away. It keeps tugging at you. If I did that to you, you would start to laugh, but then you would change. It would start to not just irritate you, but you would ignite like you would not expect after some time. It never goes away. You are dealing with the tug of attention that no one is asking for. No person has any concept of what this is like. There is no one who is famous that I know who actually wants any of that. But we do it because you can't avoid it. It comes with the package. You have to accept it. There are different ways of dealing with it. One way is to confront it and jump in at the deep end and be there. In many ways that's a healthier attitude than trying to avoid it because you can't win. You are more in a position that you feel that you are taking charge and it's something you decide, as opposed to it happening to you. If you are more upfront about it and confront it — not in a confrontational way — but acknowledge that it is like that. There is nowhere you can go where it's not like that. 

Is the joy of performing the trade-off for all the attention and fame?

I don't know that it's a trade-off because [performing] is an honest sharing between yourself and an audience. Everyone understands what is going on there. Once you are off stage, there is no real communication. People don't understand the other side at all. There is a huge divide that happens the minute you walk off stage. When you are on camera, you are actively addressing people because you are being interviewed, or you're confronting a mass audience —that's an active thing — you walk up there, and you do it. When you walk off it, in all other walks of life, you walk back to your private life. That's not the case with fame. 

It's also not you that they are after. You don't ever really feel that you are connected. You become merely an object, and it is completely wiping away the subject aspect of it. This is what women feel like when they are being objectified, or being objects to men, or when you become a sexual object as opposed to a subject of some sort. It's really the same. 

You talk candidly in the film about being very hard on yourself. You are critical on stage during a sound check as well as in the studio and even during a rehearsal. I admire your striving for perfection, but do you think that given your early success that you have to keep proving yourself. Is there a sense of imposter's syndrome here after hitting it big?

I understand your thinking that way, but it's not that way for me. I relate to my own critical sense, which comes from my playful side. I know what I can be, I know what is potentially there and achievable, and it is a state of being that is wonderful when you hit it. It's right next to you all the time, but not easily accessed.  To hit that moment where something is given wings by your involvement — you become part of something of a spiritual nature. There is a relation and a connection that is wonderful. That's what I reach for.

The other side of the coin is when you don't hear yourself properly. If you are a gymnast, and you don't know where the ground is, it is hard to gauge where to land. It's the same as a singer. If you can't hear yourself properly, your references are muddled, you become uncertain about where you are, and you have to aim for something that seems to be the best place. When you are in that state of mind, you turn on other sides of your system in order to compensate for what is lacking. To be playful at the same time and have access to what you can be is hard. It doesn't really happen.

Likewise, I was pleased to see that A-ha really had issues with its image and wanted to shift from been teen heartthrobs to making more serious music. How much of your image did you control? The film suggests you were really at the mercy of the executives and your naivete was a factor.

We never wanted to be teen heartthrobs! These people in these positions understand the mechanisms of how things work. They let things happen and it is down to the artists to learn and position yourself where you want to be in the whirlpool of things. Naivete, certainly. We didn't link it to the fact that the camera [creates] an image in a 1000th of a second where you are between two different expressions on your face, and it looks as if you are frozen in that expression, which is easily used to convey something that was never on your mind. That is being utilized by media all the time. It's not you. It's not really anyone. There are not many people in media that actively abuse these things, but you take advantage of something you see potential for that is being used for whatever it can be used for. 

The early success perhaps enabled you to take a new, more serious direction with your music at times, but it was a bit of a trap. I expect "Scoundrel Days," your second album, was more in the spirit of the band, and it certainly showcases different songs. "October" has a jazzy lounge vibe," and "Manhattan Skyline" is a real hybrid song. Can you talk about the band's evolution?

Our demos point more to "Scoundrel Days"-type of music than the first album and how it turned out. The first album is not the best reflection of the band. As opposed to saying it's a development in the band, it's more a case of the band becoming more assertive and more heavy-handed with things and too eager to avoid certain things, which is another type of prison. You shouldn't do something to avoid something else. You should do something because you are drawn towards it and be free to explore that. As opposed to trying to not be seen as something, which is not an honest place to be. You are leaving a product behind that is neither this nor that.

So, it took a while for us to become good, if ever. We don't agree on all things, either. I take a slightly different view to this sort of phenomenon or these mechanisms and how they work. I find that Pål and Magne are more in tune with each other in that aspect, while I believe in who we are, and who we can be, and welcome that. In my view, the other two are more concerned with what things come across as, and for me, that becomes a hindrance to your free spirit within your music. Maybe they recognized that in themselves to a point, and maybe not at all. I feel the band is held back a little by that attitude. 

Do you have a personal favorite song, one that you felt should have been a hit, or just didn't get the chance it deserved, maybe one that you feel is more representational of the band? 

There could be many. I don't have a favorite song. I can lean to one song for a period, then to another. But all the songs we've done, we've had some sort of soft spot for at some point in time, or they wouldn't be there. And there are a lot of songs in the making that have never gotten through to the point of being recorded and released. There are some cornerstones. On "Memorial Beach" there is a song that most people don't know, "Cold as Stone," which I like. A lot of others that are more the darker side of the band. A-ha is a dark band, really. That is where we are coming from. None of us listened to pop music growing up. We would not have listened to A-ha ourselves if we were on the street, because of the image of the band. Because of a number of things. Because of me, for one. [Laughs]

The early success was this hit single, which caught on when the MTV video came out. What do you think was the power of that song/video at the time? A happy surprise? Too much too soon?

You're asking a lot of things at the same time! I was completely confident we'd make it on the world stage. I never doubted that, because it's an honest, genuine piece. That has never surprised me at all. Too much too soon? Not too soon. Too much? Certainly, definitely. Our lives changed. We were hit by a bullet train. You don't wake up soon after that. It takes a long time to get your act together. We ceased being a band the instant we made it. It took a year or two before we started to really . . . no one had any idea what it was like to be in that turmoil. There is no time to think. You just do what you have to to get through it in a way. But then we became a band later on. We've had decades on the road. I feel the documentary fails us a little in the second half, which [chronicles] when we got back together through to today. That is the longest period that we've been together, I believe. And it's our time when we've done our best business and touring. We played to many more people in the second half than in the first, and success-wise, that's a bigger achievement than making it in the first place, I would argue. 

What observations do you have about the legacy and longevity of the band? Did you ever anticipate that you would still be playing with Magne and Pål for almost 40 years!? 

I saw 30 years, for sure. I didn't see 40. But I saw 30. I saw three albums to start with. I don't go around seeing things, but that's come true.

I was pleasantly surprised that the film doesn't delve into addiction issues, or any of the typical rock star pitfalls. There were songwriting credit disputes, there was a hiatus, solo albums, there were reunions and comebacks, though . . .

That's to be expected. What I do feel is that the focus in the second half of the film is the disagreements and problems. But one has to bear in mind that we've been together for all this time and we've chosen to get together and get back together over and over again. We have a deep respect for each other and I'm always proud and honored to be associated with them. And we all feel the same. But we are not the same, and that is part of the package. All three of us are completely necessary for the band to become A-ha. Magne is a much bigger songwriter in A-ha than he gets credit for; a good number of the riffs and hooks are from Magne. For me to get in there with songwriting, that has never happened. I do it on the side because that's what works. I'm cool with that.


Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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A-ha A-ha The Movie Interview Morten Harket Movies Music Tribeca Film Festival